But human rights activists differ on how much responsibility Pope Francis personally deserves for the Argentine church’s dark history of supporting the murderous dictatorship.
The new pope’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it’s unfair to label Bergoglio, then a thirtysomething leader of Argentina’s Jesuits, with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still wrestle with.
“In some way many of us Argentines ended up being accomplices,” at a time when anyone who spoke out could be targeted, Rubin recalled in an interview with The Associated Press just before the papal conclave.
Some leading Argentine human rights activists agree that Bergoglio, now 76, doesn’t deserve to be lumped together with other church figures who were closely aligned with the dictatorship.
“Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship,” Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta’s atrocities, said Thursday. “Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that,” Perez Esquivel told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires.
But others say Bergoglio’s rise through the Argentine church since then has put him in many positions of power where he could have done more to atone for the sins of Catholic officials who did actively conspire with the dictators. Some priests even worked inside torture centers, and blessed those doing the killing.
And now that Argentina is actively putting former dictatorship figures on trial for human rights violations, they say he’s been more concerned about preserving the church’s image than providing evidence that could lead to convictions.
“There’s hypocrisy here when it comes to the church’s conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular,” said Estela de la Cuadra, whose family lost five members during the junta years and whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group to search for missing people. “There are trials of all kinds now, and Bergoglio systematically refuses to support them.”
Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court in trials involving torture and murder inside the feared Navy Mechanics School and the theft of babies from detainees. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman told the AP.
Bergoglio’s own statements proved church officials knew from early on that the junta was torturing and killing its citizens even as the church publicly endorsed the dictators, she said. “The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support,” she said.
Rubin, a religious affairs writer for the Argentine newspaper Clarin, said Bergoglio actually took major risks to save so-called “subversives” during the dictatorship, but never spoke about it publicly before his 2010 biography, “The Jesuit.”
In the book, Bergoglio said he didn’t want to stoop to his critics’ level — and then shared some of his stories. Bergoglio said he once passed his Argentine identity papers to a wanted man with a similar appearance, enabling him to escape over the border to Brazil. Various times, he said he sheltered people inside church properties before they were safely delivered into exile.
The most damning accusation against Bergoglio is that as the military junta took over in 1976, he withdrew his support for two slum priests whose activist colleagues in the liberation theology movement were disappearing. The priests were then kidnapped and tortured at the Navy Mechanics School, which the junta used as a clandestine prison.
Bergoglio said he had told the priests — Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics — to give up their slum work for their own safety, and they refused.
“I warned them to be very careful,” Bergoglio told Rubin. “They were too exposed to the paranoia of the witch hunt. Because they stayed in the barrio, Yorio and Jalics were kidnapped.”
Yorio later accused Bergoglio of effectively delivering them to the death squads by declining to publicly endorse their work. Yorio is now dead, and Jalics has refused to discuss those events since moving into a German monastery.
Both priests were eventually dropped off blindfolded in a field after a harrowing helicopter ride, two of the few detainees to have survived that prison.
Rubin said Bergoglio only reluctantly told him the rest of the story: that he had gone to extraordinary, behind-the-scenes lengths to save them.
The Jesuit leader persuaded the family priest of feared dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so that he could say Mass instead. Once inside the junta leader’s home, Bergoglio privately appealed for mercy, Rubin wrote.
“Fortunately, a while later they were freed, first because they couldn’t accuse them of anything, and second, because we moved like crazy people. The very night that I learned of their kidnapping, I began moving” to save them, Bergoglio recalled. All this was done in secret, at a time when other church leaders were publicly endorsing the junta and calling on Catholics to restore their “love for country” despite the terror in the streets. Other members of the slum church who were captured along with the priests were never seen again.
“It’s a very sensitive subject,” Rubin told the AP. “The Argentine church was one of the most conservative in Latin America. It showed a good disposition toward the military authorities, who, to make matters worse, considered themselves Christians and called themselves good Catholics.”
There were about 50 Argentine bishops at the time, and Bergoglio was somewhere in the middle politically, Rubin suggested.
“There were some who were in it up to their necks,” he said, citing Christian Federico von Wernich, who served as a police chaplain then and is now serving a life sentence for torture and kidnapping.
“There were those who risked it all to openly challenge the junta, and some of those ended up dead,” Rubin added, among them Bishop Enrique Angelelli who was killed in a suspicious traffic accident in 1976 while carrying evidence about two murdered priests.
Activists say the church has yet to fully apologize for its human rights record, identify those responsible for the many violations the church knew about at the time, or lead Argentina’s justice system to bodies and people who were stolen as babies from their birth families.
Bergoglio said when he ran Argentina’s bishops conference in the 1990s that no such evidence existed in church files, but that hasn’t satisfied Gaston Chillier, director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, which tracks the country’s human rights cases.
“There’s a serious problem here, that the new pope could be involved in confusing episodes over his role in covering up the human rights violations during the dictatorship, and beyond that, he was the head of the church for a long time during which they didn’t apologize. This affects the legitimacy they were hoping to confer on the leader of the church,” Chillier said.
Bergoglio was named Buenos Aires cardinal in 2001, after running the Argentine conference of bishops for several years. Under his leadership, Argentina’s bishops issued a collective apology in October 2012 for the church’s failures to protect its flock during the dictatorship, but the statement blamed the era’s violence in roughly equal measure on both the junta and its enemies.
“Bergoglio has been very critical of human rights violations during the dictatorship, but he has always also criticized the leftist guerrillas; he doesn’t forget that side,” Rubin said.